Iceland is both a summer and winter destination with vastly different activities to partake in and experiences to have during both seasons. A successful trip if you plan to visit Iceland in winter requires slightly more planning than a summer trip. These are 6 essential things you must know before you visit Iceland in winter and have the trip of a lifetime, because that’s a given.
Flights to Iceland are affordable
It’s not impossible to visit Iceland for a week or even a long layover. WOW air offers affordable options to stop in Reykjavík on a layover to mainland Europe from the US. This is a great option if you want to quickly see some of the sights near Reykjavík, including the Blue Lagoon.
WOW air also offers inexpensive round-trip flights to Reykjavík from the US that really can’t be beat. If you’re OK with flying in and out during the week, you could potentially get an amazing deal on airfare to Iceland. Keep in mind you have to pay unless your carry-on item is small enough by their standards and food and drink (including water) comes at a cost when in flight, but if you’re not bothered by a no-frills flight experience, WOW air is for you.
Once you arrive, Iceland is expensive
Are flights to Iceland cheaper in winter? Possibly. Everything else? No way. This isn’t limited to only when you visit Iceland in winter, but it is worth noting. The flight cost might be cheap to Iceland, but everything sure is expensive once you land. Like, everything. The cheapest thing in Iceland is the tap water, which is some of the most pure tap water you can drink. Just don’t turn on the hot water or else it’ll smell like sulfur (or farts, depending on how mature you are)!
Food, drink, tours, and souvenirs – you name it. Everything comes at a high cost in Iceland. The trip I went on with my siblings was not a backpacking trip. We didn’t pinch pennies like I did in Europe or South America. We decided it was a good idea to eat at the well-recommended restaurants and pay for the tours for activities we deemed worth it. In the end, it was all worth it. Don’t go to Iceland and half-ass it. Enjoy it!
Renting a car is a must
The most practical way to get around Iceland is to rent a car. Before we left, my brother told me his friend didn’t rent a car and couldn’t fathom why anyone would need a car. When we were leaving Iceland, he told me he couldn’t fathom experiencing Iceland without a car. It was so necessary.
Renting a car in winter meant that we could create our own schedule and drove to our destinations at our leisure. Sometimes we left before the sun rose and usually we returned to our Airbnb rental after dark. We stopped along the way to take photos, pet horses, and did whatever we wanted. We certainly wouldn’t have had this freedom if we were taking tour buses everywhere.
Our rental car was through Lotus Car Rental and we had such a stellar experience. The employees were so hospitable and helpful and the car was great. I’ll be writing a review of my experience with Lotus soon; stay tuned!
Daylight hours are very limited
The biggest concern about traveling to Iceland in winter is the lack of sunlight. It makes driving the roads worrisome and limits your daytime activities. Example: you have to think about what time your snowmobiling or ice cave tour will start and end and plan on whether or not you’ll have to drive at night back to your accommodation. We spent one night in Hali because there was no way we could drive from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón and back in one day.
We also had to wake up really early and be in the car by around 10:30am, which was around the time the sun rose, to maximize our daylight time. Everything required just a little more planning because we had only 4.5-5 hours to experience the best of Iceland’s south coast in five days.
When in doubt about how much time it will take for an activity or excursion specifically in winter – plan ahead.
The weather is unpredictable
I thought Patagonia was the only place where you could only experience all four seasons in one, but Iceland was very similar. One minute the weather was completely sunny, then rainy, snowy, and windy. When walked to the plane wreck on Sólheimasandur Beach it was a bit windy and cold outside, but an hour later when we walked back to the car, we were pelted with sleet. As I sped off in my snowmobile on Langjökull glacier I could clearly see the other riders ahead of me, but soon after I could barely see anything but white snow. You get the idea.
Every day I wore two pairs of leggings, two pairs of socks, snow boots, a tank top, long-sleeve shirt, hoodie or alternative long-sleeve shirt, scarf, jacket, hat and gloves. It sounds like a doozy but I was never completely frozen. It’s better to wear too many layers than not enough, and worst-case, you can just shed some layers in the car you’re planning to rent. Problem solved!
A trip to Iceland in winter might sound like you’re signing yourself up to freeze your cheeks off every day, but it’s really not much colder than other parts of Europe I’ve visited in winter.
You just might see the Northern Lights
Chances are you’ll catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis if you visit Iceland in the winter months when there is full darkness at night. Depending on where you’re researching the information, this could mean September-April or November-February.
I visited Iceland in January and saw the Northern Lights, but other friends of mine didn’t see them in December. It’s somewhat unpredictable, but you’ll have a better shot the longer you stay in Iceland during the winter months. I’ll be writing another post on the specifics around Northern Lights hunting soon, too!
Stay tuned for more posts on Iceland! I can’t wait to share more tips and stories from this epic trip!